Monday, June 17, 2024

What You Give & How It Grows


Mark 4:26-34

Proper 6 / Year B

There is always more to Jesus’ parables than meets the eye.  Most are not strict allegories where every little detail has a significant meaning.  But parables, while having a straight-forward message, often have a subtext; an important nuance easy to miss.  Take today’s parable of the mustard seed.  The plain meaning is great things often have small beginnings; just like the mustard seed that, while being tiny, grows into a tree large enough for birds to nest in its branches.  The birds provide the nuanced element to the parable.  

The other day I noticed a small flock of birds pecking around in my yard.  They were eating seeds of some kind, hopefully weeds because I have lots of those.  Here is the rub: if the birds eat every seed and none are left, no new growth will happen and no new seeds will be produced.  If they consume everything available to them they will insure their own demise.  Think of the birds in Jesus’ parable.  If they peck every seed, even the tiny mustard seed, there will be no tree and they will have no place for shelter and rest.  It is an important lesson to learn.  

One way we define ourselves is by pointing to what we have and what we own.  The mustard seed story reminds us we are also what we conserve.  Just as important as what we have is what we do not have.  Just as significant as what we consume is how we refrain.  Just as defining as what we take from life is what we give back.  If we are all take and no give our lives, and the lives of many others, will be greatly diminished.

If your aim in life is godliness then this is a central concern.  God, who appeared to Moses as a burning bush which the flame existed in but did not consume, needs nothing, takes nothing, and exhausts nothing.  God’s nature is revealed as always giving: creation, life, love, forgiveness, providential care, the Incarnate Son, the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We know God only through what God gives to us.  If we are to reflect anything of God’s life then we too must learn what it means to give.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the old wild west prospector and the pump.  The man is plodding across a searing desert landscape and has run out of water.  His situation is dire and he is desperate.  Then, as if a miracle, he stumbles upon a water pump.  Over and over and over again he cranks the handle, but nothing comes out.  Then, nearby, he notices a jug with water in it.  The jug has a note on it.  It explains the water is necessary to prime the pump.  Without it, no water will come out, but once primed it will gush forth.  Finally, the note instructs the user to refill the jug before leaving so the next person will be able to prime the pump.  Well, the prospector is faced with a dilemma.  If he trusts the note and it doesn’t work he will have wasted the only water he has.  If it does work he will be saved and the next person who happens by just might be as well.  I have heard two endings to this story.  In one, the prospector drinks what is in the jug and the pump is rendered inoperable.  In the other, he does as the note instructs and once primed the pump produces unimaginable amounts of cool, clear, refreshing water.  Ponder each possibility and the lesson it tells.

Winston Churchill once noted what you earn makes a living, but what you give makes a life.  I knew a person who once sported a bumper sticker on his Corvette which read, “In the end, the one with the most toys wins” and that is exactly how he lived his life… until he went bankrupt and lost everything.  I don’t ever remember a funeral where a family member spoke of the departed listing all the things the person acquired in life.  Now, they will speak about the things the person enjoyed doing in life... fishing, baking, whatever.  But more than anything the speaker describes how the person gave of himself or herself – to family, to friends, to the community.  What you earn makes a living.  What you give makes a life.

And, at least by the measure of today’s parable, what you give is a seed, a possibility.  And God is all about making something significant out of possibilities.  After the seed is scattered the parable notes “the earth produces of itself.”  The Greek word used here is automaton, from with we get the word ‘automated.’  The meaning is straight-forward.  We give of ourselves, but often have no control over what happens next.  This is when God gets to work taking our seed through the germination process to bountiful harvest.  

I suspect most of us have little idea just how much richness we add to life.  This is because we are often unaware of how God uses our goodness and giving in ways we cannot know or imagine.  I have a thick stack of notes people have sent me over the years.  They are from parishioners and other folks thanking me for one thing or another, some of which I don’t even remember doing.  Individually, most of the notes describe something which cost me very little.  Taken as a whole, they are overwhelming proof God can and does work through us and our feeble efforts.  

I hope you have some kind of sacrament like my notes; something which speaks gently, but clearly about how God has brought a bountiful harvest from the seeds you have sown.  If you measure your life by your net worth on a portfolio statement I encourage you to recalibrate your thinking.  Life is not about what you have.  It is about what you give, and what God does with it.


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